In Defence of Singlestick

Bring me to a Fencer, I will bring him out of his fence trickes with good downe right blowes
-George Silver, Paradoxes of Defence

Singlestick is a game with simple rules.  It has been practiced for centuries in Scotland.  You stand, without moving your feet across from your opponent with the stick for which the game is made raised and protecting your head in the position the Scots called St. George’s Guard.  Your opponent does the same.  On the command of “go” you attempt to strike each other on the head with enough force to draw blood without him striking you in return. There are occasionally variations, but that’s the gist.  Singlestick is a game with simple rules but endless complexities and strategy. Continue reading

The Knightly Knife

I had a conversation with someone a while back about Game of Thrones.  They were pointing out to me the “incorrect” way they wore their swords, saying that they were being worn too high on the waist.  I had another problem with how the swords were being worn around the castle, namely that they were being worn at all.  It seems that the main characters in particular wear a sword all the damn time.  Although this is a minor gripe with an excellent series, let me tell you that swords are (in general) uncomfortable.  Historically there were of course situations where you would want to have a sword close at hand, but in your own house was probably not one of them.

“Ah,” I hear you say, “but what about assassination?  Surely you would be worried about your enemies cutting you down while you were unarmed.”  Well, that’s certainly a good point, but the fact of the matter is a sword is a terrible assassin’s weapon.  First, it’s all but impossible to conceal.  Second, you have to be able to draw it and strike without anybody noticing.  So no, I don’t think people would have been terribly worried about being assassinated via sword.  I’m sure it happened, mind you, I just don’t think it was that common.  Even in times where a sword was considered part of a gentleman’s dress (mostly after the 16th century) most accounts tell of sword fights and not sword “drive by stabbings.”  Having said that, important to remember that there was a time that everyone carried a knife.

The modern idea of honour s a funny thing.  The thought in these times is that knifing an enemy is a low thing to do.  Something an honourable knight wouldn’t have to worry about.  Back in the sword days this may not have been the case.  From some of the tales of the time that have survived we can see that if someone wronged you, revenge was inevitable and the exact means was left to your own devices.  Combine that with a culture that virtually demands that any adult male carry a knife and you have a recipe for violence.  Knives of the time were tools as much as weapons and always by your side.  In fact the Saxons share a name with their ever present blade, the Saex, as seen here in Hanweii’s replica:

I figured this space needed more saex appeal.

I figured this space needed more saex appeal.

Knives as an ever present companion are a staple of European society and enough people carry knives today to be considered a still living tradition.  In a way we owe it to ourselves to be proficient in knife fighting if we plan on carrying a knife.  A weapon we don’t know how to use belongs to our opponent.  But let’s look again at the knives in olden days.  We’ve mentioned the saex.  In Fiore’s time the rondel was the dagger of choice.  There was also the ballock knife which later e

volved into the Scottish dirk.  From the surviving manuals we can see that these all had a similar shape and were used in a similar way.  The sword and knife company Cold Steel makes some good rubber training knives and a training dagger that works really well so long as you take off the large and slightly goofy looking cross guard.  It’s worth noting that from my research almost every dagger in history didn’t have a cross guard at all.  Some did, but by and large knives are most useful without one.

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The bottom one is my preferred option.

Dagger play is a tricky thing.  An easy trap to fall into, that I’ve seen happen many times is teaching new students that Renaissance dagger is exactly the same as modern knife.  I’m not going to waste any more time talking about this except to say “don’t, unless you know exactly what you are doing.”  Make it clear to students that there is a difference and warn them off real world confrontations.  One of the biggest things to keep in mind is that knives now are far sharper than they were.  Thus, almost all attacks were delivered with the point.  Daggers are also much bigger than a standard pocket knife.  This totally changes the game.  It’s just such a shame that knives are too often seen as weapons to be feared these days.  In Scottish society carrying a dirk was a sign of adulthood, and I don’t think this is without merit.  I prefer people carrying knives to guns, after all.  I have heard far too many accounts of people for whom there is no intermediate step between “I feel threatened in this situation” and pulling a weapon.  At least with a knife there is a chance for defend yourself.  So, as always, stay safe and don’t get in any knife fights.

Fighting Scots

The Scottish have something of a reputation for fighting.  Back in the 18th Century this was also the case.  I think it’s no coincidence that the Romans built a wall to keep the Scots (okay, the Picts actually) out of their territory.  Sadly, there isn’t much in the way of recorded Scottish swordplay and what does exist has been diluted by English sword masters pretending to teach a Scottish system.  Hey, this was good business on their part as they were simply marketing to what was in demand.

Probably the best source we do have of Scottish swordplay comes form a man named Thomas Page.  Mr. Page was an English artillery officer who wrote a very brief summary of Scottish highland broadsword play as he observed it. Now, I am loathe to describe any system of martial arts as being superior to any other, but Page would probably not have agreed.  He saw the Highlander fight first hand and saw them as true masters of the sword.

So what made the Highlanders “better” than their English contemporaries?  Well I have a couple of theories.   I think the biggest thing was training.  For an Englishman to become a soldier was a career choice.  For a Scottish Highlander, being a warrior was cultural.  Sword training began at a very young age.  So when matching a lifelong swordsman against someone with only a few months or even weeks of training, there is really no contest.

English Broadsword of this era also had some pretty strong deficiencies as well.  As much as I love the swordplay as practiced by masters Henry Angelo and John Taylor, their system is highly derivative of the point oriented smallsword way of fighting.  This translated in to a very linear fight.  When you think and fight exclusively in straight lines you are opening yourself up to complete decimation by a swordsman used to using oblique angles and circular movement.  Guess how the Scots liked to fight?

Outside Guards: Smallsword, English Broadsword, Highland Broadsword

Outside Guards: Smallsword, English Broadsword, Highland Broadsword

We also have some body mechanic issues as well.  Being so close to the smallsword system, English broadsword was focused of keeping the sword hilt between you and your opponent at all times and almost exclusively relied on wrist powered cuts.  While these cuts are perfectly effective when delivered properly, they were far less devastating than the elbow and shoulder cuts that were favoured by the Highlanders.  It was a trade, really, between the stronger defence of the English Style and the more powerful attack of the Scottish.  Of course the Highlanders compensated quite well by using a device that was out of style the rest of the world over: the shield.DSCF1267

So despite not having access to any true first hand sources of uniquely Scottish swordplay, we still have a good idea of exactly how the Highlanders would have fought.  It’s a fascinating study that I am just getting to the meat of and an area I plan on training in for a long time to come.